The start of the new year will mark a new era for Curry County, as a few of the county commissioners’ economic development projects that have been in planning stages finally go live.
The first of these is the Internet redundancy loop — mere feet from being complete and ready for calibration and to flip the switch on Jan. 1, making Internet crashes a thing of the past.
“It turned out mighty fine,” said John Irwin, who has served on the project since its inception in 2002. “Portland or San Francisco doesn’t have it any better.”
That was some of the good news commissioners divulged to about 40 citizens in a special meeting at the Chetco Activity Center in Brookings Wednesday morning.
“Telecommunications is the central nervous system of the American economy,” said Irwin, reading from the county’s telecommunications strategic plan.
“It has revolutionized virtually every aspect of our lives and every industry, from education and health care to banking and finance.
“To remain competitive in the world Curry County businesses, institutions and residents must have available to them the most advanced telecommunications technologies and services and the knowledge of how to use them.”
Until now, Internet service to Brookings was supplied by a spur line that extends north up the coast to Astoria. To get information to, say, Cave Junction, it was routed north to Coos Bay, then east on lines paralleling Highway 42, south to Roseburg and Grants Pass and southwest to Cave Junction.
When the line was cut — in the past year by a lawn mower in Grants Pass and a fire in Curry County — that information is stalled until repairs are made.
Merely by extending the line from Cave Junction to Crescent City and up the coast to Brookings has created a loop; the redundancy means if a line is cut anywhere, data is automatically transmitted on an alternate route.
But it wasn’t just a matter of drilling poles into the ground and stringing line.
“This was a huge — enormous — learning experience,” Irwin said. “It was an experience fraught with more barriers and delays; I don’t think anyone thought about just how difficult this would be.”
“Fostering development of a 21st century knowledge-based economy means building on our existing strengths while adding additional diversification to the economy,” the strategic plan continues. “Successful implementation of the recommendations depends on continuing community participation, cooperation and collaboration.”
In the end, there were three federal agencies, two states and three counties involved. Charter Communications was the only telecommunications firm that submitted a bid. Sutter Coast Hospital was involved, as was the Oregon Health Network, fire departments, city officials, utility companies, environmental groups, lobbyists and private landowners.
Funding was a huge challenge, Irwin noted, and included involvement from Charter, Sutter Coast Hospital and the federal Rural Health Care Pilot Program — revenue generated from the “universal services fee” on phone bills.
“And the god-awful winter weather,” Irwin said. “Every time a barrier seemed surmounted, another one would pop up.”
This summer’s fires, landslides, rain, wind — the darlingtonia flower, a carnivorous plant.
“That kept us out of the forest for five months for a census they had to do when it blooms,” said Charter Communications spokesman Chris Burns. “And then the spotted owl. I swear those guys flew to Washington themselves to tell them they can’t have noise during their mating season. We couldn’t get in the forest until July of this year — seven months of downtime.”
There were canyons plummeting 800 feet; one span was 500 feet across and necessitated shooting the line across to string it.
“Hats off to Charter for stepping up,” Irwin said. “I don’t think they knew what they were up against. Nothing got more rural or wild than what we did. There were bets made that said it couldn’t be done.”
He plans to collect on those.
A dozen years since Irwin developed the concept, Burns still believes the effort was worth it, primarily because of the story he heard about a 6-month-old Seaside girl who became ill. Her fever started at 102 degrees and quickly rose to 105.
Through telecommunications, a physician in Portland was able to correctly diagnose the baby with a type of meningitis that gave her a few hours to live. Based on the diagnosis, the girl was flown to Oregon Health Science University.
“She lived,” Burns said, his eyes misting over. “This tiny girl. Because something happened because of the circuitry we put in. It’s not about redundancy anymore. It’s about saving lives.”
It’s stories like that that have Burns and Irwin excited about Curry and Del Norte counties’ redundancy loop.
It’s what many people — business owners, physicians and citizens — have been waiting for, as well, according to County Commissioner David Itzen, who helped keep the project moving forward since he was elected in 2011.
“Economic diversification is the cornerstone of a healthy, growing 21st century, information-age county,” Irwin said. “By taking full advantage of telecommunications, Curry County is poised with the opportunity to become a world-class destination for a wide variety of businesses, healthcare, retirees and tourism.”
Oregon’s redundancy is unlike that anywhere in the nation, as every route on the loop was competitively bid. That means additional capacity is available — on a loop that features 720 gigabytes, or 29,617 times the size supplied to Charter customers’ home computers.
For Burns, the project started with the priority of creating redundancy. After the little girl survived, his view expanded to include saving lives. And now, it includes saving — and creating — livelihoods.
“We’ve come a very long way,” Irwin said. “You will have lives enhanced, the economy improved and lives saved. The big question now is, what will you do with it? Build on it.”
Commissioners have said for months that they know business owners who would have liked to have opened shop in Curry County, but were wary because of the lack of redundant Internet.
Call centers now won’t have to worry about service being cut off. Physicians will be able to access a patient’s medical records from afar. Businesses can manufacture items and sell them online.
“Be creative,” Burns said. “You get to use this however you want. A hundred small businesses started can turn Curry County around.”
“I never doubted that it wouldn’t come to fruition,” Irwin said. “It just takes a lot of persistence.”